The Cornflakes of Prehistory

mince pies
Mince pies are a good example of how value laden a food can be. On the surface merely small pastry covered pies and yet to those who celebrate at this time of the year it is hard to see a pile of mince pies without evoking strong emotional feelings. We are letting our imagination add to the physical evidence.

I much enjoyed the recent session on Archaeology and Fiction at TAG (the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference). Discussion was stimulated by a variety of papers from archaeological authors, illustrators, playwrights and poets – among others.

I attempted to look at the nature of truth in archaeological writing. I’m not the first to do this, it is an old conundrum that we rarely appreciate just how much imagination we use when we interpret the data that we are so highly trained to collect. And, of course, we can also question the objective nature of that data: the eye of the beholder and all that! I don’t think it does any harm to revisit this debate; it helps us to remain humble about the so-called academic wisdom that we all wish to produce.

It struck me how much our values have changed. As a profession I think we can be quite snobby about the ‘value’ of archaeological novels as opposed to archaeological textbooks. Yet I’d lay a wager that the novels reach a larger audience. One of the things I do for a living is to read the works of aspiring novelists and provide guidance on the archaeological settings and data that they use. Occasionally fellow archaeologists have been quite surprised at this, and yet, if we do not take the time to work with those who popularize the results of archaeology, then we certainly have no right to question their final output. Not everyone writes novels that I’d read out of choice, but everyone has an audience and everyone has the right to publish. The past is not for archaeologists to guard. If our academic texts are not immediately user friendly then we have a duty to help out.

It is interesting that in the past we gave status to storytellers, those who constructed stories to inform us about the world around us. In recent centuries this has lessened. We have diminished the didactic power of fiction and increased the distance between fiction and fact (look at the relative values of ‘academic’ papers and ‘popular’ writings in the recent REF evaluation of universities). It is salutary to realise that they used to be one and the same.

Academic narrative is no more factual just because it is academic than popular narrative is fictional just because it is popular. Archaeological fact is indeed the foundation of all interpretation whether academic or popular but it is what we do with it that matters. It is just the springboard for what must follow and without interpretation it is sterile. That interpretation is the job of the storyteller (for which read illustrator, game-maker, film producer and so on).

Excavation can give us a bowl. It can even give us traces of cornflakes. But it requires interpretation (and imagination) to combine them into breakfast. And even more imagination to communicate to others the significance of that breakfast to the people who ate it.

Whatever breakfasts your Yuletide rituals demand – I hope you have a merry time and a well-earned break over the next couple of weeks.

December sunrise Orkney
Solstice sunrise. December 2015, Orkney.


Archaeological Fiction

With the imminent arrival of TAG I have been thinking about Archaeological Fiction. Has anyone else been enjoying The Last Kingdom on BBC Two? A friend described it as a guilty pleasure. There is no reason why the pleasure of watching TV should be guilty, but I think there is a bit more to The Last Kingdom than mindless relaxation. I’m sure it is full of horrible anachronisms, but it raises some interesting points. The details are more nuanced in the books, but that does not mean that the television series is not worth watching.

First of all there is the depiction of two competing groups living in a single landscape. How do you tell people apart? How do they use the landscape? How do different languages and religions work? How do groups view one another? Secondly there is the depiction of the Christian church struggling to establish and maintain its place within Saxon society. This raises all sorts of questions relating to new influences and new ways: the role of women; education; medicine; food; religion and politics; and religion and language – all of these come into the story. Thirdly, there is the sheer level of violence in the world: how did one maintain economic stability when passing horsemen might burn your farmstead and kill your folks on a frequent basis; how does it affect people to live in a world where extreme violence is commonplace?

Obviously, this is a period about which I know very little – certainly not enough to pronounce on the accuracy of the depiction. But for me the interest lies not so much in the details as in the questions. You could regard it as science fiction, although the details are subtler than in Star Wars many of the questions are the same. It has got me thinking. For me it is a reminder that the stability and unity that we seek so urgently today have always been elusive. It turns my mind to the end of Mesolithic Britain, another great time of clashing cultures. What was it like to live then? Was it violent as some people suggest? There have been so many periods when the landscape of Britain was home to differing and distinctive peoples. Are we unique today in seeking a cosy homeland where all agree?

Finally, I do return to the detail. How on earth did the programme makers manage to find an actor who looked so like the Alfred Jewell?

The alfred Jewell
The Alfred Jewell as depicted on the Ashmolean Museum website
Alfred, played by David Dawson, as depicted by BBC Two

The Emotional Fallout of Loosing Doggerland

Morgan Scheweitzer's image of Doggerland for the New Scientist
This image of Doggerland by Morgan Scheweitzer for the New Scientist sums up the twenty-first century attitude to this ancient landmass

I’m working up a paper about the drowning of Doggerland. I’m amazed by the way in which this is described in highly emotive language by archaeological academics. To coin a phrase the ‘tags’ are all negative: devastating; killing zones; abandonment; vulnerability; increased tensions; disaster; instability; risk; stress, I have deliberately avoided assigning word to author.

At its height, at the end of the last great Ice Age, Doggerland comprised a considerable landmass and different areas of the terrain are likely to have been used by various hunter-gatherer groups. The inundation that led to the loss of this landscape took place over about six thousand years between c. 10,000 BC and c. 4,000 BC and was one of a suite of palaeoenvironmental changes that occurred at the time. It was not a steady process, at times people would have been well aware of the encroaching seas but at other times, particularly towards the end of the period, the rate of change slowed.

Our evidence suggests that many of the groups who would have been affected made use of the coastal zone and were highly sophisticated in their use of marine resources. The changes to their environment meant a rebalancing of the division between water and land. Groups in the interior may have been less flexible, as may their prey. It is interesting to ask ourselves to what extent these people felt vulnerable, or threatened, by the transitions that were taking place.

I think it unlikely that they did. Given the fact that these societies were living through a long period of environmental change, instability was their norm. They had many strategies for flexibility built into their annual lifeways and they were well equipped to survive. Low density populations; inherent mobility; sophisticated understanding of the world around them, including the coastal and marine environment; social adaptability: all of these equipped people to live in this changing world. Of course there would always be individual problems and disasters such as a particularly harsh winter, or the tsunami set off by the Storegga Slide around 6200 BC, but my interest lies in their response to the long-term transformation.

Which leaves me wondering – why the emotional reaction today to the drowning of Doggerland? Could it have more to do with our own fears? We are more populous and less flexible than our ancestors and we are very preoccupied with climate change, in particular sea-level rise and the loss of dry land. A millennia or so of perceived stable conditions have made us complacent about our lifestyle and we are suddenly worried that we may not be able to continue into the future in the way to which we have become accustomed.

It seems to me that the general theme, that surviving the loss of Doggerland must have been problematic, may relate more to our present times than to the peoples of the Mesolithic. This has been discussed in an interesting paper by Karla de Roest which is available online here and at other sites.

Whatever: Doggerland is now part of our national consciousness, depicted in a great poem by Jo Bell.

Cultural exchange in prehistory

One of the big, and fun, debates in British archaeology relates to the way in which farming was introduced some 6000 years ago. We know that there was already a population of hunter-gatherers well established in the islands, how did they react to new ways?

This week I went to a great lecture in Aberdeen which got me thinking about this. Robin Torrence and Jude Philp (from the Australian Museum and the Macleay Museum, respectively) were talking about their work researching the ethnographic collections of Sir William MacGregor, the first Administrator of British New Guinea in the late nineteenth century. Much of MacGregor’s material ended up in Aberdeen when he retired home. The interesting thing is how the material changed from first contacts to once the relationships had been established. Apparently when the British first came into contact with a new tribe the material they were given comprised mainly objects that reflected the uncertain nature of the contact, and the people they first met, like clubs and mace heads. Later on, when everyone had got the measure of each other, the material changed to more domestic items. So you can see a difference in the collections from different areas over time. Also it seems that here, at least, excavation of the mission settlements and the local settlements suggests that each had very few of the others’ artefacts. I’m wondering what it says about culture contact and material object and particularly to our archaeological evidence for the transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic in the UK. We need to be very careful of erroneously drawing direct analogies from ethnographic work, and in the UK it is likely that this period of transition saw many different scenarios. But it is obvious that we need to think outside the box a bit.


Sir William MacGregor (source: University of Aberdeen website)

MacGregor was very aware that the advent of colonial rule would change the way of life of the people he was living among and he was keen that the material he had collected be used for the education of people at home. I’m hoping that he would have been pleased to know that it is still provoking debate over 100 years later.

Experimental Archaeology

Back in 1982 I took part in an experimental archaeology expedition in Sweden. We recently unearthed the cine film footage of the expedition.

The project was initiated by Tomas Johansson of the Institute of Prehistoric Technology, Ostersund, Sweden.

The aim of the experiment was to introduce laboratory based archaeologists to the potential of intensive field based work. This short film documents the experiment over a week, tool making, butchering, fishing and gathering.

Continue reading Experimental Archaeology